Museum painting depicting great Seattle fire turns 50

Look at the crowds gathering, the merchants scrambling to save their goods, the wooden sidewalks, and the sparks flying from the steam-engine pump that was meant to help put out fires, not add to them. See the falling steeple?

As murals have done since the time of cave paintings or the Last Supper, the mural of the 1889 Great Seattle Fire tells a story. Since 1953, thousands of Northwest schoolchildren have studied the dramatic image of the event that seemingly changed Seattle overnight from what it was to what it is.

"If you asked longtime residents of the city to describe the Seattle fire," mural historian Roger van Oosten says, "they would describe that painting."

Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the Museum of History & Industry's Great Seattle Fire mural, which was painted by a Seattle man at the behest of what is now Safeco Insurance. Rudolph Zallinger was no mural slouch. Just four years earlier, he'd been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his dinosaur mural at Yale University's Peabody Museum.

Only the Klondike Gold Rush, World War II and the Seattle World's Fair come close to the fire in significance for this city, some historians say. It cleared the path for a newly conceived Seattle with a sensible building code and wider streets at the end of a booming decade. The fire, which started in the afternoon and burned until early morning, wiped out 116 acres of central business district and waterfront. But excitement for a new city started before the ashes were cold, instilling a lasting sense of Seattle's spirit.

Tinderbox conditions

The weeks before the Great Seattle Fire had been unusually dry with light northerly winds that were still felt on June 6, 1889, when a workman — writers of the era described him as being "of mediocre intelligence" — doused a flaming pot of glue with water.

This "unconscious incendiary" sent hot globs of glue into the dry wood shavings of a cabinet shop at First and Madison streets.

In the vernacular of today, the conditions behind the runaway fire would be called a perfect storm. Winds blowing through the open doors of the cabinet shop whipped the fire on, wiping out the block in 20 minutes.

Some of the wood buildings were 30 years old and kindling dry. The volunteer fire chief was out of town — and so was the tide, leaving fire hydrants dry.

Yet, as hopeless as it was to stop the blaze, headlines the next morning would include "Hope confidently expressed for future." In the next weeks, hundreds of businesses set up shop in tents. From the time of the fire to the following year, 4,000 buildings were erected, according to Polk's Seattle Directory of 1890, and the population soared from less than 20,000 in the 1888 census to 43,847 in June 1890.

Much of our forebearers' undaunted optimism comes through in Zallinger's mural, which van Oosten says was painted in a swashbuckling style of realism that accentuates the drama.

In the real fire, there would have been more chaos, he believes. Reports have said there was so much smoke right from the beginning that firemen had to peel up a wooden sidewalk even to find the flames.

Zallinger's mural is almost a tribute to heroism, says van Oosten, if a little too tidy.

"The Great Seattle Fire didn't look like this," he said, "but it sure should have."

Zallinger, who died in 1995, studied photos of the buildings as they existed and was careful with every detail, including the firefighters' uniforms.

A family of artists

On a recent visit to see the mural, Zallinger's sister, Wanda Wells, and his brother-in-law, the renowned maritime painter Thomas Wells, recalled that Zallinger turned to an unlikely source to make his fire snap with power.

On his way home from MOHAI at night, Zallinger stopped at the Montlake dump fires to study the flames. If you don't remember the dump, Wanda Wells adds, then you likely don't remember that University Village was locally referred to as "Dump Gate" in its inauspicious beginning.

Art and a wry sense of humor run in the Zallinger family. The patriarch, Austrian-born Franz Zallinger, managed to get relatively good treatment at a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp after World War I by trading on his artistic talent.

He came to Seattle in 1923 and painted a number of historic murals, including the backdrop of a MOHAI diorama of the Denny party at Alki. Thomas Wells dropped in a painting of "The Exact" at harbor in that scene.

"Put the boat in, but don't spoil my mural," Wells, 86, remembers his father-in-law saying.

It took the younger Zallinger four months to paint the Great Seattle Fire mural at MOHAI. But it took him four years to paint his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Age of Reptiles" at the Peabody, which led to a series of Life magazine covers.

One favorite story from that time, besides the visitor who asked if Zallinger was painting the dinosaurs from photographs, was his response to a woman who asked if he was painting by numbers.

Yes, he told her, in fact, the kit for the 110-foot wide mural was available at most department stores.

The fire mural measures 10 feet high by 24 feet wide. It is small by comparison, but it packs a lot of heft. There are few photos of the actual fire, because many photographers were scrambling to save their shops. So for the past five decades, whenever there's a news story on the fire, images from the mural get pulled out.

Van Oosten recalls Zallinger being a little coy about his Great Seattle Fire mural in later years, believing that he had done better work.

"But you'll never convince me of that," he said.

Sherry Stripling:

The 50th anniversary

The Museum of History & Industry has come across an unexpected treasure in preparing for the Feb. 15 anniversary of the painting of the Great Seattle Fire mural: the recorded voices of pioneer witnesses to the fire.

Nearly 50 pioneers were invited to the unveiling of the mural in 1953. Then in their 70s and 80s, the longtime memories of these Seattle residents slingshot us back 114 years, says Feliks Banel, deputy director at MOHAI.

They tell of fear that the workman believed responsible for the fire would be lynched and of the scramble to save abstract books that were the lifeblood of a deed and mortgage company.

Listen to a recording of four of the voices:

Witness: 'Half the people in town were down there at the fire' (:14) - Real (92K) | MP3 (56K)

Witness: 'I stood there with mama and we watched it burn' (:14) - Real(96K) | MP3 (60K)

Witness: 'We didn't think the fire was going north' (1:09) - Real (428K) | MP3 (276K)

Witness describes rescuing items from the fire (2:09) - Real (784K ) | MP3 (508K)

The mural celebration will begin at 1 p.m. Feb. 15 and include the sister and brother-in-law of the artist, Rudolph Zallinger. Admission is free for employees of Safeco Insurance, which commissioned the mural. The day also marks MOHAI's 51st anniversary.